Inside the factory where the next Air Force trainer is being built



ST. LOUIS, Missouri – At a plant in St. Louis that once helped launch the US space program, the next generation of Air Force trainers are taking shape.

Boeing’s T-7A Red Hawk is still years away from reaching initial operational capability. But during a visit to the factory where the new aircraft is assembled on Wednesday, Boeing officials were optimistic about its future potential – not only as a trainer to train new pilots, but also as a model for the construction of future planes.

The high-tech methods Boeing used to design and build the T-7 save time, streamline processes, improve quality and reduce defects, company officials told reporters.

“Everything is 3D, everything is digital,” said Paul Niewald, vice president of Boeing and director of the T-7 program. “It’s an authoritative data source. So our technical publications, our flight manuals, our maintenance manuals, they all use the same data that engineers use, that our mechanics use to build the airplane.

In 1960, when the St. Louis plant was operated by Boeing’s predecessor, McDonnell Aircraft, engineers in white overalls and caps assembled mercury capsules here in a clean room. And more than half a century ago, this factory produced dozens of F-4 Phantoms for the military to wage war on Vietnam, reaching its peak of one-month production at 72 in June 1967.

But now Boeing sees a highly digital future for aircraft design and production unfold here, with the T-7 leading the way. And the manufacturing lessons learned from the T-7 have already helped create the Air Force’s new F-15EXs and the Next Generation Air Dominance secret fighter, said Matt Giese, Boeing chief test pilot for the. F-15EX.

The Air Force in 2018 awarded Boeing a $ 9.2 billion contract to build 351 trainers to replace the aging T-38 Talon.

Boeing used model-based engineering tools and advanced manufacturing techniques to move from the concept of what would become the T-7 to its first flight in three years, Niewald said.

Advances in high-speed computing have enabled Boeing to perform computational fluid dynamics analyzes and obtain aerodynamic characteristics for aircraft designers earlier than usual, he said. . This reduced from seven to nine months the typical process, in which wind tunnel models would have been used to collect this information.

It wasn’t the first time that model-based engineering and 3D tools were used to design an aircraft, but Boeing was using them more than ever. The digital design process meant Boeing could know exactly how the parts would line up and fit together and precisely where all the holes needed to go. This meant that the supplier could pre-drill all the holes so that they were ready for fasteners when delivered to the Boeing factory, which meant that there was no need to drill on the T- line. 7.

Boeing said this approach allows it to both improve the quality of its build and reduce errors such as foreign object debris incidents – an issue that has affected the company’s production of the KC-46 in 2019 and led to a temporary halt in delivery and grounding. of the Pegasus on the Boeing production line.

If there is no drilling on the line, Niewald said, there is less risk of metal shavings or other debris that must be swept up afterwards and could cause problems if missed. . Concerns about FOD are ever-present, with signs urging mechanics to watch out for debris displayed throughout the facility.

“By having a design ready for fasteners, we’ve eliminated a lot of the tactile work and the flaws that come with it,” said Niewald. “Assembly drilling is the number one defect usually found in a traditional line.

Another benefit of pre-drilling parts before they reach Boeing’s facilities is a significantly quieter workplace. When Boeing built its first two TX planes for the competition, Niewald said, the hangar was so quiet that mechanics could even, for the first time, request music to be played through the speaker.

The factory was also relatively quiet on the day the reporters visited, aside from conversations and the hum of machines as mechanics worked on T-7s, MQ-25s and other planes. Towards the end of the tour, someone rang AC / DC’s “Back in Black”, which echoed throughout the cavernous factory.

Identical planes, no holds

The precision of the model-based design also allows the front fuselage sections of the T-7, built in St. Louis, to be quickly and easily combined with the rear sections built by Saab in Sweden, said Niewald – much more. fast than a traditional build would be.

Saab is moving production from the T-7’s rear fuselage to a newly opened facility in West Lafayette, Indiana, to facilitate shipments to St. Louis. Saab’s Swedish plant has three more fuselages to build, after which it will ship its remaining equipment to Indiana.

The precise workmanship of the parts also means the T-7 can be assembled without the need for shims, the thin pieces of material inserted to fill in the gaps between the panels, Niewald said.

“The first two planes we built [are] the most identical planes we’ve ever built at the site, ”said Niewald. “And that will continue with the shimless design; everything will be the same.

It doesn’t just pay off in the build process, he said, but also in sustaining. As the T-7 needs to be serviced or modified in the years to come, he said, those responsible for maintenance will find all parts of the aircraft to be exactly the same, which will make it easier to insertion of a new one without adjustment. Niewald said Boeing brought in the mechanics who would build the T-7 and the maintenance people who would keep it in the clean sheet design process from the start.

This has paid off with a simple but effective ergonomic change in the way mechanics and maintenance technicians access the T-7’s avionics, Niewald said. Older planes often had the door panels covering the avionics that flipped up, forcing maintenance managers to bend down to make repairs or modifications.

But maintenance officials asked the designers of the T-7 if the avionics doors could instead lower, allowing easier access and giving their backs a break.

Boeing mechanics also use touchscreen tablets to guide them while building the T-7, so they have work instructions and specifications handy. This way, they can quickly find out, for example, what size clamp is needed on a certain pipe instead of moving around to look at paper plans on a table.

The simulators used to teach pilots to fly the T-7 were built using the same engineering data as the aircraft itself, as well as running the same operational flight program software. This means that in the future, when the aircraft receives a software update, the simulator software will be updated with one push, Niewald said. Trainers on other aircraft typically receive a software upgrade a year or two after the aircraft, creating a wedge between what pilots learn about and what they actually fly.

Supply chain issues

As with the rest of the defense industry, supply chain problems caused by the pandemic have complicated and delayed production of the T-7, Niewald said. This was particularly difficult as the program relies on a whole new supply chain that had just started when the pandemic broke.

Niewald said the program wasted about seven months due to various supply chain issues, including shortages of the microchips needed for the T-7’s avionics. Travel stops around the world also caused problems, he said, as experts were unable to travel to other countries abroad to help with engineering, inspections or processing of necessary parts. Additionally, some workers have had to take on additional jobs to cover people in quarantine, further complicating supply chain issues, he said.

“We are still seeing residual impacts from the pandemic,” said Neiwald. “But they’re an amazing team, and they’ll continue to recover and try to speed up as much as possible, from a mitigation standpoint.”

The damage has already been done to the T-7 schedule. COVID-related parts shortages were among the factors this summer that led the Air Force to announce that it had pushed back the T-7 Milestone C, or a decision allowing the plane to go into full production, from more than a year. The Air Force said at the time that this milestone could be reached by the end of 2023.

Niewald said Boeing believes the T-7 will reach Milestone C in July 2023, a little earlier than the Air Force prediction earlier this year. He also said an initial declaration of operational capability is expected to arrive sometime in 2024.

“We are working as best we can to move things to the left,” he added.

And Boeing is confident that the T-7 will be able to evolve to meet Air Combat Command’s desire for an advanced tactical trainer, who wants to better train new fighter pilots to fly in combat.

“We designed this thing with growth in mind,” Niewald said. “The whole digital concept [of the T-7] is that it is easily upgradeable [so] that we can move forward regardless of the demands or future training needs represented. The digital foundation of the T-7 will allow [Air Education and Training Command] to build on this for decades to come.

Stephen Losey is the Air Warfare reporter at Defense News. He previously reported for, covering the Pentagon, special ops and air warfare. Prior to that, he covered US Air Force leadership, personnel and operations for the Air Force Times.



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